Two weeks after Singapore’s People’s Action Party won its 15th straight general election on July 10, taking 83 of the parliament’s 93 seats, a closer analysis of the polls has unsettling implications for the party now that the Lee family is slowly drifting away from power.
It is clear that future elections, which must be held every five years under Singapore’s hybrid Westminster parliamentary system, are going to be tougher for the PAP. Reform requires dampening down on perceived arrogance, bringing in more diversity of views, allowing robust debate within parliament and in the media and using moral persuasion rather than harassment and/or legal measures against the opposition to mollify an increasingly distrustful millennial generation.
The PAP will have to be much more careful in political office candidate selection to avoid embarrassment like the withdrawal of Keppel executive Ivan Lim, dubbed by some the “future of the party,” who was forced out after allegations emerged about past work and national service conduct.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, vowing to retire “as soon as that is possible” after the end of the coronavirus crisis, which has infected more than 50,000 people although it has killed only 27, named a new steady-as-you-go cabinet on July 25, changing the heads of six ministries, pushing three elders into retirement, and giving additional duties to his expected successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who also becomes Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
In previous elections opposition votes were perceived as pure protest votes, but this time, according to those on the ground, with the coronavirus raging and with a recession clearly on the way, there was much deeper concern regarding the future. How the opposition performs in the next election depends partly on those concerns but also on what happens in parliament, how opposition unity is perceived, on opposition grassroot organization, and very specific targeted campaigning.
To show just how close the election really was, with 2.65 voters going to the polls, had 11,451 voters changed their intentions across five key constituencies, the opposition would have won 26 seats. If a further 66,251 voters changed their intentions in four group constituencies, there would have been a hung parliament. The opposition could win government on the above scenario with just above 40 percent of the total votes.
(GRCs, as they are called, were implemented in the 1980s ostensibly to enshrine minority representation in the parliament, with at least one minority running in a four-person team. In fact, given the fragmented nature of the opposition, they were designed at the hands of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to make sure opposition parties couldn’t get enough candidates together to contest in them.)
The Workers Party held onto Aljunied group representation constituency and Hougang Single Member Constituency and unexpectedly won a second GRC, Sengkang, giving the party 10 seats in Parliament. The newly formed Progress Singapore Party under the stewardship of ex-PAP veteran Tan Cheng Bock, aided with the appearance on the stump of Lee Hsien Yang, the premier’s estranged brother, cut deeply into a number of PAP strongholds, and the Singapore Democratic Party made strong inroads in two single constituencies.
The opposition’s campaign was hamstrung through a number of issues. First, the Covid-19 restrictions eliminated election rallies, which have historically bolstered opposition support before elections. The short 10-day campaign severely restricted the opposition’s ability to get their message across as well. Opposition communication channels were severely restricted, with little access to the government-controlled mainstream media, leaving the opposition to rely almost solely on social media to get their message across to voters.
There was also conjecture about the role of 15,000 ex-Indian nationals believed loyal to the PAP who have been granted Singapore citizenship over the past five years, residing in the East Coast group constituency in which the PAP polled 61,009 to the Worker Party’s 53,225. The Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s team could only muster a majority of 7,779, with critics in the area claiming this new citizen cluster had provided the bulge. Heng’s weakness has generally been seen as a major setback in the succession plan to replace Hsien Loong, Lee, over the weekend when announcing his new cabinet line-up, has signaled a delay in his retirement.
In addition, critics say the Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA) was used by the government during the election campaign to silence the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman and opposition heavyweight, Paul Tambyah, whose comments concerning the government mishandling of foreign worker dormitories during the coronavirus outbreaks.
Although critics charge that electoral boundaries are heavily gerrymandered and malapportioned to favor the PAP, results show this time that wasn’t the case. Hundreds of thousands of PAP votes went to waste in PAP candidates’ supermajorities across a number of constituencies, with current constituency delineations laying to waste around 300,000 PAP votes. This is a great advantage to the opposition if they can target their future campaigns in the more marginal constituencies, where hypothetically the opposition could win a majority of constituencies without necessarily winning the popular aggregate vote.
According to the Election Department (ELD), only 6,570 overseas Singaporeans of 217,200 voted in GE2020, reportedly along similar lines to local voters. Many thousands were disenfranchised due to restrictions on overseas voting. Expatriates contacted by Asia Sentinel around the ASEAN region, Australia, and the US said that the expatriate population is overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the opposition. If more overseas Singaporeans had the opportunity to vote, this would have a strong influence on future results.
Can a collective alternative voice emerge?
The opposition is not a homogeneous grouping and certainly far from united, with some parties appearing self-centered rather than seeking mutual consensus and cooperation. Opposition stalwarts told Asia Sentinel, in meetings before the election, the Workers Party had been reluctant to cooperate formally and instead extended it on an ad hoc basis. Any change now depends more on what the opposition does than what the government doesn’t do.
Bonds of trust need to be developed across the opposition. Even with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council civil suit against WP chief Pritam Singh and fellow Aljunied-Hougang MPs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang, there is a perception among some within the opposition that the WP is too accommodating with the ruling PAP. The WP manifesto was even criticized for being too much like the PAP’s. Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement conferring official opposition leader status upon Pritam Singh could be a ploy to prevent further solidarity of opposition parties. Indeed, some political observers say, there is a risk that the PAP could in fact coopt the Worker Party into a trap.
The GE2020 campaign didn’t produce any reported friction or stumbling blocks between most of the opposition parties, except for one three cornered contest between the Singapore Democratic Alliance and the Peoples Voice, both splinter parties. The campaign tended to be reactive to issues arising during the campaign debates, like the 10 million population controversy. Opposition parties on the whole didn’t present alternative policies, which potentially could have shown up conflicts and differences. The common theme emphasized checks and balances against governance, or as senior PAP minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said immediately after the election, bring a ‘new balance in politics’ that will promote vigorous debate between the PAP and opposition.
It will be the behavior of the WP inside and outside of parliament that will be closely watched to see how Pritam Singh fits into the new role. If the opposition is to progress to the next step, Pritam Singh must utilize his good relations with Tan Chee Bock (already 82) of the PSP, Paul Tambyah and Chee Soon Juan of the SDP, and Lim Tean of the PV, among others, to build a formidable opposition for the next election. The interpersonal dynamics between them will be critical to the future of the opposition.
The opposition doesn’t have to present any grand vision for Singapore to win over voters. The opposition only has to show that it sincerely cares for the welfare of Singaporeans and can do so with full transparency and accountability. The overwhelming number of middle class/middle aged voters, deemed as the sandwiched class, are those who are suffering from unemployment and competition for jobs from foreign workers and new citizens. Many have been forced into the unstable gig economy, which has created an environment of insecurity, particularly the future of their children. This section of voters is also concerned about public housing leases, which directly affect personal asset value. Although, in this recent election, the PAP assisted many of these people in the Covid-19 crisis, around 100,000 votes drifted towards the opposition.
The PAP has failed to appease this segment of the constituency, as fourth-generation leaders haven’t clearly demonstrated where jobs are going to come from. They were shown clearly not to have the answers. This is where the PAP needs to gain confidence if the party is going to survive over the next generation. This will be the PAPs Achilles heel, electorally.
Nor have the 4G leaders captured the imagination of millennial voters. This group wants to see diversity of opinions, discussion, debate, and entrepreneurial approaches to problems. The way 4G leaders attacked the opposition, particularly the way WP Sengkang GRC candidate Raeesah Khan was treated, and how Dr Chee Soon Juan was savaged by the PAP over the10 million population controversy, was seen by younger voters as an affront to the democratic process, and probably was a major factor in PAP’s loss of the constituency to the WP. Questions about the PAP manifesto and arrogance of some PAP cadres is a major turn off for the younger generation. The PAP needs to have a massive rethink about the way they campaign in future elections.
The young generation of voters are not getting information from the mainstream media. This propaganda channel has lost much of its influence over the electorate. Millennials almost totally rely on social media as a source of information and opinion. Once opinions are swayed within cyberspace in a particular direction, the PAP found it’s extremely difficult to counteract.
Now that an officially recognized opposition exists, it must be perceived as a collective alternative, if one day it has designs on becoming the government. Without this perception of unity, the PAP will be able to easily discredit its integrity. Opposition unity is a major part of the platform is needed to garner millennial support and loyalty.
The next political step for the opposition will require the major opposition parties putting aside their individual agendas in the interests of creating a truly democratic Singapore. First, a modus operandi of cooperation must be forged, which before the next election should fit nicely into some form of formal coalition.
The WP already has strong electoral appeal, with strongholds in the Aljunied, Sengkang and Hougang areas. The SDP, after flailing for decades, is also potentially a strong electoral force which is capable of taking Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang and possibly Marsiling-YewTee GRCs. The newly formed PSP should be much stronger next election and could put up formidable challenges in several areas.
Three cornered contests must be avoided at all costs. Whether the splinter parties including the National Solidarity Party, Singapore Peoples Party and Red Dot United survive or die of irrelevance will be seen over the next few years.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel